Contraband International Ltd started life when Archie Archer sold all her worldly possessions on a market stall in 1995 and flew to India with an empty rucksack and a £1,000 to set up a company. From a Prince's Trust loan to Shell Livewire Regional Finalist 1997 and NatWest Everywoman Athena Winner in 2011, Archer has grown the business from a market stall to manufacturer, importer / exporter and online mail order company to its current status as a global entertainment agency.
Q: What inspired you to set up Contraband International Ltd?
A: I set up my company just after leaving university. After graduating I moved to London and all I wanted was to own a convertible sports car. I knew I could make the money to buy one myself and that I’d get there quicker than working for someone else. I stayed in Oxford, rather than going home as many students did and street traded as a hair braider and henna tattoo artist. I used to earn over £1,000 a week sitting in Oxford and over £2,000 a week working hair braiding in St Tropez. I don’t remember much about my university course, but I learnt from the age of 19 that I was really entrepreneurial and enjoyed working for myself. I was great at sales and learnt my sales pitch in about six languages. I knew I had the ability to see an opportunity and to make money without having to work for someone else.
Q: Had you always envisioned setting up a business within the events and entertainment industry?
A: I never thought I’d end up running an agency in the corporate entertainment industry. I’ve always been hugely ambitious but my business has grown organically and with each new opportunity it has evolved to the next stage of progression. From trading as a henna artist the next natural move seemed to be setting up a henna business. I created mail order company, Henna Crazy where I ran training courses and hired myself out as a henna tattoo artist for corporate events. My turnover was pretty small approximately £80K per annum, but I was making a living for myself. It was while working at corporate events and private parties that I met other acts including; belly dancers, magicians, balloon modellers, face painters. Almost unwittingly my business began evolving the entertainment agency that we are today.
Q: How do you source the acts on your books?
The first 40 or so acts on my books were the performers I’d met while working on the various the events that I had been hired for as a henna artist. Initially the performers I knew recommended other good performers. The agency snowballed from 40 acts to 350 and continued growing. Today we have over 1,500 acts on our books and ‘publically’ our books are shut. That means we really are brimming with the UK’s best roster already, but if we see something really unique or world-class, then we invite them onto our books. We have built up a fantastic reputation which means performers approach us to register. We have anything from five to 10 acts each day from across the globe wanting to register with us, from America to the Ukraine, from Australia to France.
Q: Turning an idea into a business ultimately requires some level of funding – how did you manage this?
A: The only funding I have ever had was a Prince's Trust loan in 1996. I applied for a £5,000 grant but over sold myself and was awarded a £2,500 loan; I was told: "You’re clearly very driven you’ll make the money without a grant!”. Aside from that funding I’ve never had any other financial input which has meant the company has grown organically, albeit slowly in the beginning years. I don’t believe you need funding to set up all businesses.
Q: Managing cash flow is vital for businesses especially during times of economic downturn, what procedures do have in place to control costs and stay competitive?
A: We changed our payment terms several years back and we insist on payment prior to event. We’re an agency and 99 percent of our new business comes from being found on Google. It doesn’t make sense to offer credit to companies and individuals who you don’t know, its financial Russian roulette. There are some clients that pay us on a 30 day account, so we make sure we run D&B reports to monitor the healthiness of our clients. D&B reports not only show us credit worthiness (and any changes) but also monthly credit lines, enabling us to limit our financial risks. Over the last couple of years we’ve benefitted from maintaining tight credit control and this has enabled us avoid bad debts.
Q: What importance would you place on online marketing in terms of successfully promoting the business and developing leads?
A: I can’t sing the praises of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) enough. Any business will benefit hugely from being on the first search results page of Google. That doesn’t just mean running a Pay Per Click (PPC) campaign and relying on paying for your online marketing. PPC is great if you can’t achieve a position on the first search engine results page for a given term or terms, but the CTR (click through rate) is considerably lower as many users avoid paid for adverts. We use an external SEO agency, but we also have invested in a full time employee working on the SEO side of our business. Our website is over 15,000 pages – it’s enormous and we offer so many different forms of entertainment that there are thousands upon thousands of key phrases we need to ensure we are ranking highly for. Google Analytics is vital in helping us to monitor our traffic month on month, and year on year. This tool clearly demonstrates where we’re performing well or where we need extra SEO work. We have on average 16,000 unique visitors a month, and over 200,000 visitors a year from a staggering 70,000 different key phrases. Without our strong Google presence we simply wouldn’t have grown so rapidly and been able to expand into the global arena in the way we have. Two years ago, four percent of our business was international, last year it was 12.5 percent and without such a strong Google presence we won’t be able to place ourselves as a key entertainment planner in the international markets.
Q: How do you balance your business and family / social life?
A: That’s a great question. In fact I put the question to my eight-year-old son. I asked him does mummy work at the weekends. He said no, not very often. I asked him does mummy work at night and again he said no. I keep normal working hours (well sometimes I might do a 12 hour day) but aside from those ‘peak’ times when I am needed at work, I think I’ve achieved quite a good balance at this stage in my working life. I have a great nanny who does the school pick up and the homework with my son, so when I come home we have quality time together. I certainly do try to balance my life in the healthiest way one can when you run your own company!
Q: Do you think an individual has to possess certain skills and characteristics in order to be a successful entrepreneur?
A: Yes, I think there are classic traits in entrepreneurs. I’ve met many over the years and generally, I would describe them as highly driven, ambitious, optimistic, hardworking and passionate. All of the entrepreneurs I have met are unable to separate work from their overall lifestyle, myself included. I don’t see my job as work I see my business as my lifestyle.
Q: What are your business plans for the future?
A: The future is really exciting at Contraband. We’re growing into SME status and currently restructuring the company. We’re growing rapidly in the global arena and we’re working towards being a leading player in the international market. I know Contraband will evolve from the entertainment agency we are today, but I’m not making non-logical jumps. I know the business must evolve organically and not be forced into the wrong direction. I have future plans of running another online agency although it’s simply an idea ticking over in my head at the moment and one I’ll certainly not jump into as of yet, it’s not the right time, but watch this space.